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The Beginners Guide to Birdwatching

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Birdwatching, or birding, as it has become more commonly known is one of the world’s fastest growing hobbies. When you mention birding to many people, the first image that comes to mind is an elderly person in neutral colours, a floppy hat with a pair of binoculars around their neck. What's interesting is the diversity of people that have taken up birding, not only is it growing in numbers, but it is also attracting many people that are under 30.

So, what's the thrill of birding? What attracts people to the hobby could be any one of a great many reasons. The thing that makes birds amazing is that they are all around us, yes you can travel far and wide to add new birds to your list, but you could also sit outside your front door and enjoy the birds that come to your garden. To see the ‘Big 5’ you normally need to travel to a game reserve which costs money, but birds are accessible to anyone, no matter what budget you have.

For some birders, the attraction is the thrill of listing. You see, most birders love bird lists – we have lists of what birds we have seen in the country, the world, our town, our neighbourhood, our garden, and maybe even a list of what bird we have seen while we walk the dog. There are birders that will travel far and wide and spare no expense to add just one more bird to their list!

Whatever style of birding or birdwatching appeals to you, there is just one warning that comes with this hobby…if you try it out, you may just be taken in hook, line and sinker – it only needs one special bird, for it to become a lifelong obsession.

So, if you find yourself tempted, let's take a look at what you need to start birdwatching...

1) Binoculars

A pair of binoculars can cost from a few hundred Rand to pairs that can get quite expensive, like R60 000.00 expensive. You don’t need to go out and buy a pair that will break your bank account to start, all that I suggest is that you get the best pair that you can afford. I started off with a second-hand pair that someone gave me, my next pair cost less than R1000, eventually I've progressed to using a much better pair of 'bins' – but the point is that I started with what I could afford. When choosing your first pair of binoculars, try out different brands and sizes, look at what works best for you.

When you look at binoculars you will see numbers such as 8x30, 10x30, etc. No, this isn't a reminder of your times tables, but a very important indicator of the type of binoculars they are.

The first number tells you the magnification of the binoculars (8, 10 or 12 etc) – this tells you how much bigger what you look at will appear. Some think that because birds are small that they should get a pair that have as much magnification as possible – with most pairs, if you get a pair that are above 10x magnification you will struggle to get a stable image and a wide enough field of view.

The second number gives the width in millimetres of the objective lens – this gives the size of the light-gathering end of the binoculars. The larger the number, the more light that will come into the binoculars. Again, it would seem like the best thing to do is to try and get the biggest possible objective lens available – the problem with this is that the bigger it gets, the heavier the binoculars get to carry around.

So, when choosing a pair of binoculars for birding I suggest a magnification of between 7-10x and an objective lens diameter of between 30-50mm.

2) Bird Field Guide